Kagoshima, located at southern tip of Japan, is a cradle of Shochu. If you are interested in the Japanese drinking culture, Shochu is an absolute must try. Like whiskey and brandy, Shochu is a distilled liquor made from various ingredients such as rice, sweet potatoes, wheat and so on. Kagoshima is the top producer of Honkaku Shochu (authentic Shochu) which refers to singly distilled Shochu. It has the unique taste and aroma of the raw materials and is made using traditional brewing methods. Let me introduce you to this alcoholic beverage.
What is Honkaku Shochu?
As Westerners may be much more familiar with Nihonshu (usually called sake in the West), let’s focus on the differences between Nihonshu and Shochu. While Nihonshu is fermented and made solely from rice, Shochu is distilled and made from various ingredients, including sweet potatoes, brown sugar, barley and buckwheat. Here in Kagoshima, Imo Shochu (sweet potato Shochu), is the most popular variety because Kagoshima is a main producer of different types of sweet potatoes.
Just like Nihonshu has various grades, Shochu is also graded depending on the production process. There are basically two types. One is made from continuous distillation and the other is made from single distillation and retains a rich aroma and the taste of the base ingredient. Honkaku shochu refers to singly distilled Shochu, and it is usually more expensive than multiply distilled Shochu. About a decade ago, Honkaku Shochu enjoyed a popularity boom throughout Japan. The price of some renowned Imo Shochu, known as Kagoshima no 3M (the Mao, Moriizo and Murao brands) skyrocketed. The boom transformed the image of Shochu, which used to be alcohol for oyaji (old men), to be more fashionable and chic.
Where to drink Honkaku Shochu?
Kagoshima has more than 100 distillers and over 2000 different Shochu. I’ll show you two ways to experience varieties of Shochu when visiting Kagoshima.
Photo : toyohara on Flickr
The Local Pub or Izakaya
Izakaya literally means “lingering at a liquor store”, and it originally began as the place for drinking rather than eating. But it evolved into a type of pub or restaurant to offer a wide variety of dishes together with alcohol beverages. An izakaya usually has a wide selection of Shochu and the ideal place to sample different varieties. The staff with abundant knowledge can give you some recommendations for Shochu and its matching foods. Generally speaking, Imo Shochu has a sweet aroma and taste from sweet potatoes, so it goes well with fatty dishes or fried foods. This means that Imo Shochu is a perfect match for tender pork, one of the local specialties of Kagoshima. Another representative dish is Satsumaage, a fried fish cake with various ingredients. Other than these, izakaya offer a variety of menu items. Why don’t you try some unique drinks and dishes?
Photo : Norio NAKAYAMA on Flickr
Photo : Zengame on Flickr
The other option to try Shochu is to join a factory tour provided by many distillers. Most of the Shochu distillers offer free factory tours where you can learn about the process of making Shochu and experience Shochu tasting. In addition, if you are interested in buying Shochu, it is usually a good deal to buy it at the shop there, along with some food products from the local area.
Photo : 薩摩焼酎・奄美黒糖焼酎 鹿児島県酒造組合 on Flickr
How to Drink Shochu
Photo : soranyan on FlickrThe alcohol ratio of Shochu is about 25% on average. There are four ways to drink Shochu: on the rocks, mixed with water, mixed with hot water and pre-mixed.
For people who want a crisp taste without a strong aroma, drinking it on the rock is recommended. Otherwise, it’s okay to dilute the Shochu with water. When mixing with hot water, make sure to pour hot water first, and then Shochu. The ideal water temperature is 80 ℃.
Photo : Yelp Inc. on FlickrThere is a special method to make Shochu much more delicious : dilute the Shochu with water and leave it overnight. This brings out the mellow flavor and aroma of the sweet potatoes.
Besides, there are many recipes to make cocktail with Shochu. I’m sure you will find your favorite taste and brand if you come to experience the rich history and culture of Shochu.